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Far Cry 5 Wants to Show an America on the Brink, Without Laying Blame

Far Cry 5 is not a game about Donald Trump. The people at Ubisoft, its developer and publisher, really want you to know this, even if they never outright say it. Far Cry 5 is a game about a cult — it’s about a charismatic leader who takes power in rural America, with support from his underlings who also happen to be his family members. Again, not Donald Trump.

Far Cry 5, from a gameplay standpoint, is not reinventing the wheel. Like past games in the series, you’re still dropped into a wide-open environment, with a lot of unique locations full of bad people, and you need to sneak around and take them out in order to liberate the region. The main difference this time, is that it’s set in Montana, not some far-flung location in Africa or Asia. You can drive around and gain allies, and once all of the locations are cleared of bad guys, you win. There are a few new tweaks — instead of climbing towers to scout locations to add to your map, a gameplay feature that Ubisoft has been overusing for a decade, more characters give you geographic information through dialogue. It makes the game feel a little more alive. It also helps that its wooded, natural environments look fantastic. I can already tell that playing Far Cry 5 and getting lost in its woods is a joy.

But I just keep coming back to the framing. Clearly, I’m just seeing what I want to see in the game’s story. That’s intentional on Ubisoft’s part because Far Cry 5 is a game that desperately wants to be relevant and set apart from the state of America today. It wants to capture rural Montana with a degree of detail and accuracy that can only come from hours and hours of research, and it also wants to not be about any particular region or population.

Far Cry 5 is a game where, when I begin my interview with executive producer Dan Hay by asking, “When did you start work on this game?” he gently remarks that “it’s a totally loaded question because we’ve been thinking about coming to the states for about five years.”

What Far Cry 5 really wants to capture is a world on the brink. “I remember watching movies like WarGames, Terminator, all kinds of stuff, and everybody was talking about the end of the world, and humanity wasn’t going to continue,” he tells me. “And it scared the crap out of me as a kid. About three years ago, I just had that feeling like it was back. And I couldn’t quantify it.” Hmmm … what world-shifting process began three years ago … 🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔

The villain in Far Cry 5 is Joseph Seed. You can tell he’s a cult leader because he wears the same glasses that David Koresh wore. When you, the unnamed player character, first meet him, you are part of a law-enforcement posse sent in by chopper to arrest him. That mission quickly goes wrong when his followers cause the chopper to crash on its way out of town. So Seed and his family, and his “family,” are in open rebellion against the government. It’s a bit Bundy-esque (Cliven, not Ted). There’s a lot of obvious narrative potential here! The primary villains of a tentpole video game set in America are rural, white, and distrustful of the government.

What a shame then that certain parts of Far Cry 5 seem to be directly at odds with each other. Take your character, for instance. You can customize them however you’d like — gender, attire, skin color, hairstyle, etc. But they don’t speak; the only way you can solve problems is by shooting. Hay said, “What we really liked was the idea of taking a superthin character, and the idea that it was more you playing. I’ve always struggled with playing a game and having a prescription of ‘This is how you should feel at this moment.’” The problem with this approach is that the only thing I did as the player during my three-hour session was perform acts of violence (and do a bit of ATV racing). The narrative thrust of the game is that, after being stranded in Montana, you — ostensibly an agent of the government — decide to kill every single one of Seed’s henchmen as a reprisal? Maybe he’s right to be scared of the law.

The Seed family is white, but their followers run the melanin spectrum. In the opening sequence, a black follower very conspicuously steps in front of Seed to protect him. The game wants you to know that its villains are very, very bad, but they’re not racist. “It’s an interesting time where people are going to look at things through their own lens,” Hay noted. “We didn’t specifically try and prescribe ‘This is who you’re up against, and this is who you are’ at all. Quite the opposite.”

Not every game needs to be about something. Hell, most games aren’t, and that’s fine. But as Hay said, “We wanted it to feel real.” Far Cry 5 is trying to capture a setting rarely seen in games (rural America) and a mind-set (paranoid), and that’s commendable. It’s possible that the game’s narrative framing takes a turn toward something more definitive and substantial down the line, and I hope so. But from what I observed, the game holds itself back — it exists in this uncanny valley where you can see figments and silhouettes of the Trump-voting America that the media loves to fetishize, but you can also see how much Ubisoft wants to maintain a view from nowhere. In trying to be about everything, the game can often feel like it’s about nothing.

So then why set it in America? Hay was vague on that front. “Maybe there was something in the water.”

Far Cry 5 Wants to Show an America on the Brink